Learning (and Loving) a Foreign Language

Throughout my high school years, among the things always stashed away in my frayed lime-colored backpack, alongside my IB Chemistry study guide and a slew of math practice tests, was a sheet of vibrantly pink construction paper. On this were written a number of short songs, rhymes, charts and acronyms, all thought up to help students of Spanish nail down grammar rules from verb conjugations to appropriate non-human plurals. My Spanish classes were full of singing, clapping, chanting and cha-cha-ing—all means (at least we were assured) of reinforcing in our minds a long list of syntax rules.

By the time I reached college, my Spanish education having started earlier than kindergarten, I was itching to meet and master a new language, a lesser-known language, and my foray into Arabic began the fall semester of my freshman year. My Arabic classes here at Cornell have been as full of laughter, singing and poem reciting as the Spanish classes of my high school days but not out of a necessity to learn by heart a sometimes mind-baffling list of grammatical imperatives. Instead here, Arabic instructors are asked not to prioritize grammar in the classroom and when students ask questions about accusative case endings, the “nisba” suffix and derived stems, they often go unanswered, particularly at the elementary and intermediate levels.

Even now after my sixth semester of Arabic, the grammar of this deeply complex language remains largely a mystery to me. Nevertheless, through daily class meetings and homework assignments, I have, just like the rest of my classmates, managed to pick up enough to get by (/succeed) in conversation and to translate a variety of primary sources. Somehow, without being explicitly taught grammar, we have soaked up what we need. I do not intend to here launch into an unconditional defense of grammar-less language education; rather my point is that each language, beautiful and complicated in its own right, deserves a tailored approach. What works in the teaching of one may not work in the teaching of another, despite all our preconceived notions about what deserves to be taught, whether it be grammar, pronunciation, formal vocabulary, etc.

As I see it, it made sense to impose Spanish grammar drills on my high school class because for us English native speakers, mastering the grammar, even the most frustrating aspects of it, was a relatively easy task. By contrast, if you require a group whose home language is English to first quickly adapt to an unfamiliar alphabet and new set of sounds (unfortunately bereft of cognates) and then bury themselves in a grammar text full of phrases like “genitive construction,” “triconsonantal root” and “enclitic pronoun,” you are unlikely to cultivate a love of or even fondness for Arabic. But are there techniques out there worth applying to all languages, in spite of their multifaceted differences? Certain methods so effective and eye-opening they should be incorporated into the instruction of all living languages? It seems that there are…


1. Language exchanges with native speakers

In my own experience, conversations with native speakers give you the chance to exercise your speaking and listening comprehension muscles simultaneously, as well as to pick up on colloquial expressions you wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to. These dialogues also help you to develop an ear for correct pronunciation, verb conjugation and grammatical structures. Leading applied linguistics expert Michael Long agrees. Indeed he suggests that despite the choppiness that can arise from native speaker/non-native speaker interactions, such verbal trades are absolutely essential to second (or third or fourth) language acquisition. So adept are native speakers at overcoming non-native speakers’ linguistic shortcomings, argues Long, that they serve as a universally indispensable resource to language learners, particularly at the early stages of the language acquisition process when learners cannot and should not be expected to participate in a totally coherent conversation.[1]

2. Language exchanges with NON-native speakers

I have always enjoyed conversing in Arabic (and before that, in Spanish) with my classmates, particularly since we all know the same vocabulary and speak with roughly the same pronunciation. There is therefore little room for misunderstanding or confusion. Communicating with other non-native speakers also affords me the opportunity to teach the language to a certain extent: When my conversation partner stumbles, I can remind him of the word he’s searching for or help him conjugate that tricky verb. An added benefit is that two non-native speakers engaged in a conversation are allowed more time for creative thinking and recall. If a non-native speaker is having difficulty conveying his point, he can attempt to do so in a roundabout way in a useful test of his abilities to stretch the language to serve his needs. A native speaker may be more likely than his non-native counterpart to resist this solution, fearing that it will create a reliance on indirect language. Furthermore, a non-native speaker talking with another non-native speaker will probably be given more time to recollect a word he has misplaced or a train of thought he has lost; native speakers seem to be less willing in general to suspend the conversation for remembering purposes.

Evangeline Varonis and Susan Gass, also applied linguists, have their own reasons for promoting communication between native and non-native speakers. Their widely cited study concludes “the discourse resulting from NNS-NNS [non-native speaker—non-native speaker] interactions serves an important function for non-native speakers. First, it allows them a non-threatening forum within which to practice developing language skills. Second, it provides them with an opportunity to receive input which they have made comprehensible through negotiation [defined as finding common ground with someone from a different background, culture and/or belief system]. In fact, we propose that this type of interaction facilitates the second language acquisition process, agreeing with Schwartz (1980) who claims that ‘second language learners of English can learn more from one another than they think they can’.”[2]

3. Humor

When I am first told a joke in Arabic, I only know it’s a joke from the pace at which it is told and the fact that it is followed by laughter from the person telling it. Its meaning is, at least the first time around, inevitably lost on me and all I can do is smile weakly by means of apology for my listening comprehension deficiencies. However, once I am walked slowly through the joke and its subtleties, I never forget it or the animation with which it was delivered. Witticisms are a wonderful way to bond and, in my experience, relieve stress and cause the language learner to feel vastly more at ease, thereby facilitating retention and attentiveness.

Debra Korobkin reminds us that “the actual empirical research investigating the relationship between humor and adult learning is negligible” while at the same time acknowledging humor’s rightful place in the classroom. The positive implications of humor are undeniable in observational studies, she writes, in which comedy and banter are seen to cultivate strong relationships between students and teachers, promote “data transmission,” and create a learning experience students later describe as “memorable,” “liberating” and “satisfying.”[3] Others agree. In two large-n randomized studies, Avner Ziv discovered that students exposed to appropriate, relevant humor in the learning process score significantly higher on final assessments.[4]

4. Story-telling

Nothing has brought me greater pleasure as a foreign language learner than hearing stories. As a student in my Spanish and Arabic classes, I have eagerly listened to tales both true and false, thrilling and boring, uplifting and dispiriting, and treasured the experience of being told each one. True, I don’t always grasp the meaning of every word but that is hardly the goal. Rather the objective is to embrace the challenge of following an uninterrupted string of words and perceiving the story’s overall meaning, significance and sometimes, lesson. This is the real world. Out on the streets of Amman, Buenos Aires and Beijing, the people you encounter certainly won’t want to have simple, lazy conversations about your hometown, number of siblings and the means of transportation you used to get there. They will want to describe their lives and adventures and if you want to make friends and connections, you will need to keep up. Listening to stories in a classroom setting is good preparation for this.

While I haven’t come across any scientific, empirical studies supporting the notion that story-telling is a worthwhile practice in the classroom, their affirmation is, I think, unnecessary. Stories are the lifeblood of communication, whether between casual acquaintances or close friends. They are how people get to know and understand each other and how we express ourselves and our convictions. They are a rich, enlightening path to appreciating foreign cultures and ways of life. The motivation to become proficient in a new language is frequently if not usually tied to a desire to study the culture with which that language is associated, making the ability to follow and comprehend stories all the more important.

[1] Michael Long, “Native speaker/non-native speaker conversation and the negotiation of comprehensible input,” Applied Linguistics, vol. 4, no. 2 (1983), pp. 126-141.

[2] Evangeline Marlos Varonis and Susan Gas, “Non-native/Non-native Conversations: A Model for Negotiation of Meaning,” Applied Linguistics, vol. 6 no. 1 (1985), pp. 71-90.

[3] Debra Korobkin, “Humor in the Classroom: Considerations and Strategies,” College Teaching, vol. 36, no. 4 (Fall 1988), pp. 154-158.

[4] Avner Ziv, “Teaching and Learning with Humor: Experiment and Replication,” The Journal of Experimental Education, vol. 57, no. 1 (Fall 1988), pp. 5-15.

Anna Collins is a senior at Cornell University studying Government.